Spatial Thinking

by Elise Levin-Guracar, May 7, 2019

image of a hand rolling up a piece of paper

Spatial thinking involves imagining, seeing, and drawing space. This includes thinking about the location of objects, their shapes, how they transform, and what they look like in relation to other objects. Picture a flat piece of paper. Now imagine rolling it lengthwise to a tall cylinder and taping it together. In order to imagine this shape, you are using spatial thinking.

Many studies have demonstrated that spatial thinking is key for STEM success[1]. One longitudinal study followed high school students for over 11 years and found that spatial ability during adolescence were predictive of choosing a  STEM major in college and occupations in STEM fields [2].

While some people believe this ability is innate, there is overwhelming evidence that spatial reasoning and skills can be taught. One meta-analysis looked at 217 studies on spatial malleability showed that spatial skills improve through training, such as task specific practice or playing computer games. Furthermore, not only is spatial training effective in increasing students’ spatial skills, but learning gained from training is also durable and transferable to novel tasks, regardless of students’ age or gender[3].

Our project fosters spatial reasoning through designing 3D objects with both physical and digital tools. Students use an online 3D modeling tool (CAD) to rapidly prototype 3D objects to print. Students will need to move from thinking about objects that can be held in the hand, to modeled objects that can be manipulated on the screen to precisely replicate 3D objects.

In one curriculum unit, students are asked to design missing pieces of a cube puzzle by manipulating the existing puzzle pieces in both physical and digital forms, engaging them deeply with spatial reasoning. We use  Tinkercad TM as our 3D modeling tool. It allows students to select a cube, duplicate it, group the cubes to form puzzle pieces, and  rotate their view of  the pieces to see all sides of them. This is a step toward the mental rotation and “seeing” missing parts in 2D renderings of 3D shapes that are part of many spatial skills assessments.

This approach builds on findings that the use of concrete 3D objects made mental rotation tasks accessible to young children[4], but we go beyond this to hypothesize that manipulatable 2D images of 3D objects on the screen used in conjunction with a corresponding 3D print will further enhance spatial reasoning.

This first activity is only the start of developing students’ spatial thinking—the rest of our design units take students even further in this topic. More on that in our next blog post.



[1] Newcombe, N. (2010). Picture This: Increasing Math and Science Learning by Improving Spatial Thinking. American Educator, 29-43).

[2] Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2009). Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over 50 years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(4), 817–835.

[3] Uttal, D., H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Alden, A. R., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N. S. (2013). The malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies.  Psychological Bulletin, 139(2), 352-402.

[4] Casey, B., Andrew, N., Schindler, H., Kersh, J. E., Samper, A., & Copley, J. (2008). The development of spatial skills through interventions involving block building activities. Cognition and Instruction26(3), 269–309.; Hawes, Z., LeFevre, J., Xu, C., and Bruce, C.(2015) Mental Rotation with Tangible Three-Dimensional Objects: A New Measure Sensitive to Developmental Differences in 4- to 8-year-old Children Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(1),10-18; Nath, S., & Szücs, D. (2014). Construction play and cognitive skills associated with the development of mathematical abilities in 7-year-old children. Learning and Instruction, 32, 73-80.